According to a joint statement released on February 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, it was meant to be a “borderless” friendship. But when Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine, China found itself in a precarious position. Its leaders are trying to preserve the country’s growing and fragile relations with Moscow while minimizing any further fallout with the West.
While officials in Europe and the United States have unequivocally condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and banded together to hit the Kremlin with a series of wide-ranging sanctions, China’s response to its neighbors’ military aggressions instead involves a perilous balancing act.
In a sign of their growing partnership, Beijing has sided with Moscow in some respects.
Chinese Foreign Ministry officials blamed the United States for the current tensions surrounding Ukraine and followed Russia’s lead in describing the war in Ukraine as a “special military operation” rather than condemning it as an invasion.
However, the situation in Ukraine has also put China in a bind, in part because of the principles of non-interference and respect for territorial integrity that dictate its foreign policy — principles that would be at odds with Russia’s military aggression against its neighbour.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yitold, a senior European official, said on February 25 that China “strongly advocates the respect and protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.” […] apply equally to Ukraine.” At the same time, Wang toned down his remarks, saying that given five successive rounds of NATO’s eastward expansion, “Russia’s legitimate security demands should be taken seriously and appropriately.”
However, when China was asked to vote on a UN Security Council resolution on February 25 condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China abstained, leaving Moscow with its veto power alone. In a phone call between Xi and Putin on the same day, the Chinese president did not support the attack on Ukraine, but said he supported “Russia and Ukraine solving this problem through dialogue,” according to reports from state television.
“Beijing has been balancing its position, but has never lost sight of its interests and principles in the process,” Zsouza Anna Firenze, a post-doctoral fellow and expert on the European Union and China, told FRANCE 24.
Beijing’s delicate balance between Russia and the West
Despite Beijing and Moscow rapprochement in recent years, united by authoritarianism and common enemies of US military power and Western liberalism, experts say the partnership is far from unconditional, with China showing itself reluctant to declare absolute support for Russia.
Indeed, despite strained relations and ideological tensions, China’s economic interests remain closely linked to the West – and even to Ukraine. China became the EU’s largest trading partner in 2021, and the country overtook Russia in 2019 to become Ukraine’s single largest trading partner.
When Russia begins to feel the pain of large-scale global sanctions aimed at crippling its ability to finance the war, it may turn to China to help limit its influence, but the country has shown no signs of helping Russia evade Western sanctions, given the risk. From losing access to Western markets, Chinese state banks began to restrict financing of Russian goods in compliance with the sanctions, and instead, China said it would continue its “normal trade cooperation” with both Russia and Ukraine.
“China wants to maintain its relations with Moscow, stick to its principles, and avoid damaging relations with the United States and the European Union,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told The Washington Post. .
But the West’s coordinated and unprecedented response to Russian aggression may complicate China’s delicate balancing act to advance its own agenda.
China wants stability in its region and beyond, to be able to ensure that it can achieve its international goals gradually and without hindrance. Given the level of democratic unity, Beijing finds itself in an increasingly awkward position, in which close alignment with Russia could carry more risks than benefits,” Firenze said.
“In Brussels’ view, a China that tolerates aggression and refuses to intervene while potentially playing a role will only further damage perceptions of China within the EU. Beijing must realize these costs and benefits as the war continues to intensify and must be reckoned with. carefully her next steps.”
China and Russia: Similar Regional Interests
Observers have also noted similarities between China and Russia’s expansionist agendas: notably in China’s pledge to achieve “reunification” by force if necessary with Taiwan, the self-governing democracy that Beijing considers its own.
Ming Jinwei, senior editor at China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency, wrote on his WeChat blog that it is in China’s interest to support Russia from afar in the Ukraine crisis, as Beijing will need Moscow’s support to assert its dominance over Taiwan.
Russia has already expressed sympathy with China on the Taiwan issue. “Russia considers Taiwan to be part of the People’s Republic of China,” Sergei Lavrov, the country’s foreign minister, said last year.
A US delegation of former top defense officials sent by President Joe Biden arrived in Taiwan on March 1, in a move seen as reassuring for the island, which has raised its alert for the ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman responded by saying that US support for Taiwan was “useless”. “The will of the Chinese people to defend our national sovereignty and territorial integrity is firm,” Wang Wenbin said at a daily press briefing. Chinese officials used the same terms to express the country’s respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Regarding the impact of the Ukraine conflict on Taiwan’s Chinese agenda, Firenze said China will monitor the West’s response to Russia as well as the resistance of the Ukrainians.
Europe’s member states are acting with geopolitical determination, something few would have expected from a bloc often seen as divided and weak. It is important for Beijing to follow suit, to see how far and how quickly the EU can act in the event that China changes the status quo with Taiwan.”
Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party should watch with concern the resilience of the Ukrainian people, as it has received a lot of support and solidarity from the people of Taiwan. This is yet another reason for China to reconsider any plans it has for Taiwan, given its unprecedented democratic flexibility.”